Catholic Relief Services' forced closure in Sudan endangers hungry (Updated)
Staffers from Catholic Relief Services' Sudan branch. Credit: Karen Kasmauski
Staffers from Catholic Relief Services' Sudan branch. Credit: Karen Kasmauski
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.- Updated March 29, 2011 at 11:40 a.m. MST. Adds report in paragraphs 11 and 12 that CRS has been allowed to resume operations.

Catholic Relief Services has announced that it will be forced to close its food program in Sudan’s West Darfur state at the end of March because the government cannot guarantee its security.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have been cut off from aid,” the relief agency’s president Ken Hackett said on March 26. “We call upon the Sudanese government to immediately restore the flow of food aid to the people of West Darfur by either allowing us to resume our service, or urgently finding an alternative.”

The closure could deprive 400,000 people of emergency food supplies.

Catholic Relief Services spokeswoman Sara Fajardo told Agence France Presse that the government asked the agency to leave because “they couldn’t guarantee our security.”

The Sudanese government accused the agency of distributing Bibles and suspended its operations in January, but the agency has denied the claim.

Catholic Relief Services builds schools and provides education, emergency shelter and water and sanitation supplies in Darfur.

“This is completely wrong,” Fajardo said. “It is against all our operating principles.”

“We are a humanitarian organization whose work is based on need and not creed. The majority of our staff in Darfur are Muslim,” she added.

Mohamed Awad, head of the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission in the state, told Reuters that Bibles had been found in refugee camps and schools and the governor had ordered an investigation which concluded they had been handed out by CRS.

The allegations of Bible distribution had resulted in a perceived safety threat to agency staff.

On March 29, Catholic Relief Services was allowed to resume food distribution in the country. Kim Pozniak, spokeswoman for the group's Sub-Saharan Africa office, was not able to provide information on why the food aid program was allowed to resume or whether or not the agency had been cleared of the Bible distribution charges. 

Pozniak told CNA on March 29 that Catholic Relief Services would not be issuing additional commentary on the situation at this time. 

Renewed fighting between rebels and the Sudanese army since December is believed to have created more than 70,000 displaced persons.

The United Nations says at least 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2003, when non-Arab rebels first rose up against the Arab-dominated regime based in Khartoum. The government estimates the death toll at 10,000.

The International Criminal Court in 2009 issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. He responded by expelling 13 of the largest foreign aid groups working there.

In February 2011 Sudan expelled the French agency Medecins du Monde, accusing it of spying and helping rebels.

Aid operations have also been hindered by a lack of security and kidnappings of foreign workers.

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